Jordan Reznick

Visiting Faculty, History and Theory of Contemporary Art, San Francisco Art Institute

PhD Candidate, History of Art and Visual Culture Department, University of California Santa Cruz


"Teaching Visual Studies in Times of Political Crisis and Social Media"

Trump had only been in office for a month when my students staged a rebellion in the classroom. The weekly quiz question appeared on the projector screen as usual. They all stood up, pushed their chairs aside, and stood in a circle. Together they discussed the question, agreed upon an answer, and one-by-one handed their quizzes in at the front of the room. Their revolt was the culmination of our lesson on the visuality of political resistance in the Approaches to Visual Studies course at the University of California Santa Cruz. Embodying Nicholas Mirzeoff’s concept of countervisuality, they demonstrated their understanding that I, as their teacher, had separated them and rendered them powerless. By gazing upon each other as equals they gained collective power and created a way for everyone to succeed.

Inviting a rebellion is one of many strategies I have adopted for allowing students to learn and demonstrate their knowledge in ways that are embodied, political, and personal. Our contemporary world is complicated. It is globalized, virtual, networked, crisis-ridden, and displaced from traditional ways of living. As students make sense of the complex power relationships that shape their lives, they need opportunities to seize agency in the classroom. Every class is an opportunity to invent modes for assessing knowledge that go beyond essays, exams, and presentations. Lessons that extend out of the Powerpoint and into student hands satisfy their craving for embodied, unruly, and “IRL” social experiences during the age of social media. These lessons allow students to achieve a more nuanced understanding of the real world applications of visual studies. Yet they also allow educators to use Universal Design for Learning principles to encourage students to learn and perform knowledge on their own terms.

In another example, for a final exam in a History of Vernacular Photography course, I covered a large table with students’ photo booth self portraits from a prior assignment, scissors, glue, decoupage, and every imaginable craft material from stickers and glitter to old mint tins and miniature pedestals. After completing the typical slide identifications and short essays, students spent an hour quietly cutting and gluing to make material objects that illustrated their expertise on the memorial function of personal photographs. It allowed me to more accurately assess students with varied language and learning abilities. It reduced performance stress for my students with psychological disabilities. And they got to keep the objects as personal mementos and physical traces of the course’s lessons. When was the last time your students said their final exam was fun?